Fathers and families

January 14, 1992

Health and Human Services Department Secretary Louis W. Sullivan was reflecting an emerging consensus when he told a group of family researchers in New York last week that fatherlessness is "the greatest family challenge of our era" and urged that the issue be placed "front and center on our national agenda."

Over the past two decades, the number of single-parent households headed by women nearly doubled among both whites and blacks, a development that reflects the profound changes that have occurred in American family life. Higher divorce rates and steady rises in the number of out-of-wedlock births and step-families all have weakened family relationships. The most troubling consequence of these changes is the large number of American children who are growing up in poverty today: one in five white children and fully half of black children under the age of 15 will spend some part of their early years in families with incomes below the poverty line.

An article in the magazine Science last week painted a bleak picture of American childhood. American children in the 1990s, the researchers found, were three times as likely to commit suicide and twice as likely to be murdered as they were 20 years ago. They are also less educated and more likely to be poor than their parents. By almost every measure, American children today are worse off than those of the 1960s and '70s.

Those years also witnessed a rancorous debate between liberals who argued that social programs alone could rescue disintegrating families and conservatives who charged such programs only made the problem worse. It may seem only common sense to recognize the crucial role fathers play in creating a healthy environment for children. But in putting the emphasis there, Sullivan is moving to break the ideological Gordian knot that effectively paralyzed efforts to create a workable national family policy for most of the 1980s. That's progress. The issue simply is too important to be held hostage to a narrow intellectual tug-of-war between liberal and conservative ideologues.

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